Punxsutawney Phil will let us know this morning whether we will have an early spring or six more weeks of winter. Phil or his antecedents have been doing this since 1887. Numerous other states have their own groundhog to use for such predictions.
Hopefully theirs are a bit more accurate than Phil: he has been correct in his forecasts about 50 percent of the time in the last ten years.
I am grateful to live in a country with such arcane traditions as Groundhog Day. In fact, every time I travel abroad I am grateful for the privilege of living in America.
But such gratitude can become idolatry.
The “rightful embrace of patriotism”
Last Sunday, an article was published in my local newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, that every evangelical should read. Written by Dr. Ed Stetzer and Andrew MacDonald, leaders at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, the article is titled, “It’s time we evangelicals have a talk about Christian nationalism.”
Stetzer and MacDonald describe Christian nationalism as the syncretistic fusion of patriotism and Christianity. This fusion claims that “America enjoys providential favor or blessings above other nations,” a belief which the authors correctly note is unbiblical.
They add that Christian nationalism “incorporates national identity into the mission of the church. In doing so, it makes this national vision not only the lens by which we understand Christian faith and practice but a precondition for participation in the community of faith.”
The authors turn to Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, in which he uses “the metaphor of citizenship to drive home the reality that the Christian identity is not bound up in any nation or a ruler.” They note that in the apostle’s culture, “Roman citizenship meant everything.” Nonetheless, Paul taught that Christians must live “as citizens of heaven.”
On this basis, they ask if evangelicals have “allowed our identity to be rooted in anything other than the gospel.” They note: “We can love our country. We must love God. When we disorder these loves, we denigrate the values of both.
“Christianity is never represented by Jesus wrapped in [an] American flag. The God of the Bible critiques every nation, culture, and people. By loving our country, and that includes our rightful embrace of patriotism, we put God above country.”
The authors conclude: “When we do, the gospel is clear, the nation is critiqued by the truths of the Scriptures, and [it] becomes a better place.”
What Cuban Christians can teach us
I have recently stated that I am a Christian patriot but not a Christian nationalist, noting that nations are geopolitical entities, while a Christian is a person who has trusted in Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. A nation by definition cannot do this and thus cannot be a “Christian nation.”
Why, then, is Christian nationalism so tempting for many evangelicals?
One factor is that America has indeed been blessed. Our geography has protected us from foreign aggressors by oceans on our east and west, forests on the north, and deserts on the south. Our continent is rich with minerals. Our founding ideology, “all men are created equal,” while not yet fulfilled for all Americans, has driven a commitment to equality and entrepreneurial progress that has helped our economy lead the world.
However, it is only one step from gratitude for God’s blessings to the belief that our people are inherently superior to others and that America has been blessed and chosen by God for a purpose no other nations could serve.
My travels have shown me the folly of such a belief.
If you could see the sacrificial passion for Jesus that empowers persecuted Christians in Cuba and Communist China, you would agree with me that the faith of many American Christians pales by comparison. If you could meet former Muslims who now follow Jesus at the peril of their lives or visit house churches in Europe that are engaging their culture with amazing effectiveness, you’d know that America has no claim to spiritual superiority in the world.
A former Navy SEAL’s favorite football game
A second factor is that Americans owe an unpayable debt to those who have served and died for the cause of freedom. Patriotism is therefore a deeply passionate emotion for many of us.
I will always remember hearing a friend of mine, a former Navy SEAL, answer the question, “What is your favorite football game?” My friend played for Navy and in the NFL, making the question especially personal for him.
His answer: the Army-Navy game.
He then explained that he loved that game not because he played in it but for this simple reason: it is the only football game in which every player on the field is willing to die for every person in the stands.
Every time I meet a veteran, I thank him or her for their service. They often respond with the simple request: make this a nation worth dying for.
How can we honor their request today?
Praying where Wesley prayed
Rather than claiming falsely that America is uniquely loved by God, let’s lead Americans to love God. Let’s tell all Americans that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Let’s love God so much that we love our neighbor so much that our neighbor chooses to love our Lord (cf. Matthew 22:37–39).
And let’s love America so much that we pray and work fervently for the day when the Spirit brings true awakening to our people.
In his marvelous book, Whisper: How to Hear the Voice of God, Mark Batterson tells of the time a group of Wheaton College students were studying in England. One of their stops included the Epworth Rectory, which had been the home of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement.
In one of the bedrooms, there are two impressions in the floor where it is believed that Wesley regularly knelt in prayer. As the students were getting back on the bus, their professor noticed that one student was missing.
Going back upstairs, he found a young Billy Graham kneeling in those kneeholes and praying, “O Lord, do it again!”
Will you make his prayer yours today?